The seven-judge panel known as the TRIFE, charged with deciding the legitimacy of Mexico’s murky July 2 election and confirming the new president, is the nation’s court of last resort. What the judges decree is literally the last word, the end of the line; there is no appeal.
On September 5, the last day the Constitution mandated the TRIFE to rule on the most hotly contested balloting in Mexico’s checkered electoral history, the judges pronounced their verdict: Outgoing President Vicente Fox’s unconstitutional intervention in the electoral process on behalf of his handpicked successor, Felipe Calderón, had put the election “at risk.” Moreover, the financing of months of commercial spots that labeled leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) “a danger for Mexico” by transnational and national corporations was patently illegal and influenced voters.
The electoral tribunal also noted that Calderón, the PAN candidate who had been declared the winner by the much-criticized Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) by a razor-thin .55 percent of 41.6 million votes cast, had been awarded tens of thousands of votes that could not be substantiated. The TRIFE, in a partial recount of less than 10 percent of the 130,000 precincts held two weeks before the final decision, had annulled 237,000 votes, more than Calderón’s supposed margin of victory.
And the winner was? Calderón, a 44-year-old former energy minister and the scion of a founding PAN family. The party was birthed by Catholic bankers to beat back “Bolshevik” President Lazaro Cardenas during the Great Depression.
The illogic of the TRIFE verdict inflamed several thousand AMLO supporters gathered outside the tribunal’s bunker in southern Mexico City. “Fraude!” “Rateros!” (Fraud! Thieves!) they screamed, as the judges were escorted by military police to their expensive vehicles. López Obrador had long accused the seven judges of bowing to Fox government pressures in exchange for personal benefit–three of the TRIFE members are expected to be promoted to the Supreme Court in the coming Calderón administration.
López Obrador points to the tribunal as a glaring example of Mexico’s corrupted judiciary and calls for a “radical renovation” of the nation’s institutions.
For López Obrador, the confirmation of Calderón’s disputed victory signals the end of the line in a grueling, three-year struggle for the presidency during which Fox and his attorney general repeatedly tried to keep him off the ballot, even threatening to jail him on a trumped-up contempt-of-court citation–and the beginning of a new stage of resistance to what the leftist characterizes as the imposition of Calderón upon the nation.
That resistance was graphically illustrated on September 1, when 155 senators and Congressional representatives of AMLO’s three-party “Coalition for the Good of All” seized the podium of the Mexican Congress to prevent Fox from pronouncing his final State of the Union address. The takeover was seen as a dress rehearsal for Calderón’s December 1 inauguration as Mexico’s new president.
The confrontation took place in an ambiance of high tension, with the Congress surrounded by thousands of federal police and members of Fox’s presidential military guard. Ten-foot metal barricades and army sharpshooters posted on nearby rooftops kept López Obrador’s supporters from gathering within shouting distance of the Congressional compound.
The military is soon expected to evict tens of thousands of AMLO diehards who have been encamped since July 30 on Mexico City’s most traveled thoroughfares and in the great Zócalo plaza, protesting the manipulated election. In a prerecorded speech to the nation on the night of the TRIFE’s confirmation, Calderón went out of his way to praise the Mexican military as one of the nation’s most cherished institutions–López Obrador has often called upon the generals not to allow the army to be utilized in a political conflict against his people.
On September 15, the eve of Mexican Independence Day, President Fox intends to deliver the traditional “grito” of “Viva Mexico!” from the balcony of the National Palace overlooking the Zócalo. AMLO’s supporters have vowed not to yield the plaza and to proclaim their own grito to the nation on that day.
Another flashpoint will come September 16, when a major military parade will be staged to commemorate the 196th anniversary of Mexico’s liberation from Spain. López Obrador has summoned as many as 1 million delegates from all over the country to converge on the Zócalo that day for a “National Democratic Convention” that is expected to declare a “government in resistance” and formulate strategies to prevent Calderón from ruling for the next six years.
For the new president, the task of governance will not be an easy one. The country is divided in half geographically (Calderón won the industrial north, López Obrador the highly indigenous, resource-rich south) and by critical issues of class and race. The breach between the brown underclass and the tiny white elite that Calderón represents will limit his ability to institute the free-market neoliberal policies that his campaign championed.
The president-elect will no doubt seek to split AMLO’s forces, offering members of López Obrador’s Congressional delegation minor Cabinet posts and canonazos (“cannonades” of pesos) to neutralize the coalition’s strength in the new legislature, where it is now the second-largest political force. Calderón cannot pass proposed constitutional changes such as the promised privatization of the national petroleum monopoly PEMEX without a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Calderón is also expected to pump windfall profits from $70-a-barrel oil into social programs to undercut López Obrador’s deep support among the underclass, an obligatory strophe for unpopular Mexican presidents.
As was the case with Carlos Salinas after the long-ruling (seventy-one years) PRI party stole the presidency for him back in 1988 from López Obrador’s onetime mentor and now archrival, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Calderón will have more support outside Mexico than inside. Both George Bush and US Ambassador Tony Garza were quick to congratulate Calderón following the July 2 balloting. Now that the TRIFE has confirmed his “victory,” Washington and European Union members–like Spain’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero–are eager to get in on the ground floor of the PEMEX fire sale and will seek to legitimize Calderón’s presidency beyond Mexico’s borders.
But within the boundaries of this distant neighbor nation, diminishing AMLO’s immense popularity and isolating him from his political base may not be all that simple. Whenever challenged by the Fox administration, López Obrador has been able to mobilize millions. Following the disputed July 2 election he has organized the largest political demonstrations in the history of the republic. Calderón’s only option may be mano dura, the “hard hand.”
Fox’s attorney general, Carlos Abascal, has already warned that should López Obrador form a parallel government, he could be tried for usurpation of powers, a crime that carries a hefty prison sentence. López Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution is being threatened with the loss of its electoral registration for preventing Fox from delivering his State of the Union address. But in the past, such threats have succeeded only in boosting AMLO’s numbers.
Indeed, López Obrador’s commitment to resisting the Calderón presidency could well come down to eliminating his physical presence altogether. Such a development has ample historical precedent in Mexican power politics. In 1994 PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down after he turned against his predecessor, Salinas. Agrarian martyr Emiliano Zapata met a similar fate in 1919 when he proved too troublesome for the Carranza government. One of López Obrador’s role models, Francisco Madero, was assassinated soon after the stolen 1910 election that triggered the Mexican revolution and eventually installed him as Mexico’s first democratically elected president.